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Stranded American researcher evacuated from South Pole

By Karen Smith, CNN
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon October 17, 2011
This photo dated October 2002 shows an aerial view of US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica where Renee-Nicole Douceur has been stranded.
This photo dated October 2002 shows an aerial view of US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica where Renee-Nicole Douceur has been stranded.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A National Science Foundation official confirms the airlift
  • Renee-Nicole Douceur suffered an apparent stroke in August at a South Pole research station
  • Douceur was unable to fly out of the region to receive treatment due to weather conditions

(CNN) -- After weeks of waiting, an American researcher who suffered a suspected stroke while working at the South Pole has arrived in New Zealand for evaluation and treatment, a National Science Foundation official confirmed Monday.

Renee-Nicole Douceur, 58, said in an interview on the "Early Show" on CBS that she was "feeling elated" to be off the Amundsen-Scott research station in Antarctica and in a hospital for an MRI and other tests that she hopes will reveal the cause of her vision, speech and other difficulties.

Douceur fell ill on August 27. She had been unable to leave to receive treatment because weather and storms prevent planes from landing during the region's winter period.

The U.S. Air Force C-17 carrying Douceur landed in Christchurch, New Zealand, at 9:55 p.m. Monday (2:55 a.m. ET), Deborah Wing of the National Science Foundation said.

The New Hampshire woman flew to McMurdo Station in Antarctica and then to Christchurch.

"We at the National Science Foundation wish the individual all the best during treatment and recovery," Wing said in an e-mail.

Last week, Douceur told CNN she had been pleading for a rescue evacuation flight since her initial stroke but her request was denied.

Raytheon Polar Services, the company that runs the station for the National Science Foundation. deemed it too dangerous to send an air rescue crew in, she said.

"While I was devastated that I had a stroke, it was like, oh, my God, it just stymied me ... and I cried," Douceur said. " I just didn't know what to do and the doctors basically told me, just go back to my room."

Raytheon Polar Services told CNN that Douceur's station has a well-trained medical staff that can provide all levels of treatment for employees.

Elizabeth Cohen, the senior medical correspondent for CNN, said it wasn't the lack of doctors that was the issue. It was the lack of equipment and a stroke expert.

"In the United States, or New Zealand ... they would have stroke experts who would be able to do imaging and see where that stroke was and do rehab specifically designed for that particular location of the brain where the stroke occurred. But they don't have that there," Cohen said last week.

Cohen said Douceur did some basic rehab while at the station, which includes relearning math.

"This is a nuclear engineer who is having trouble with sixth-grade math," Cohen said.

Douceur told CBS that doctors at the University of Texas in Austin and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore will review her test results with an eye to ensuring she is healthy enough to withstand a trans-Pacific flight to the United States. She eventually hopes to receive treatment at Johns Hopkins, she said.

Douceur's case is reminiscent of another that occurred in 1999 when a woman diagnosed with breast cancer spent months at a South Pole research center until she could be airlifted.

Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald -- a doctor -- diagnosed and treated herself for breast cancer with chemotherapy agents that the U.S. Air Force parachuted to her station.

Fitzgerald died 10 years later after the cancer returned.

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